It is probably no surprise that singer-songwriters and balladeers will often draw their inspiration from the world in which they hail. Although now living in the UK, George St Clair hails from the high plains of Texas and, after twenty years as a professional archaeologist and anthropologist, it is those roots that is the stimulus for ‘Ballads of Captivity and Freedom’.
St Clair delves way past his own lifespan for these songs. He clearly feels a deep connection with the history of his immediate homeland and especially with the struggles between Native Americans and his white colonial ancestors. This is borne out by the number of songs on the album that relate directly to that struggle. ‘The Places Where They Prayed’, ‘Autumn 1889’, ‘Cynthia’ and ‘Cimarrones’ all explore that often shameful history from various viewpoints. This is seriously thoughtful and intelligent songwriting and, with a couple of these aforementioned tracks weighing in at well over six minutes, the stories they tell have something of an epic feel to them.
For all his obvious contempt for historical wrongs in his piece of the USA, St Clair also addresses the more current and obvious issues of the day with ‘New Mexico,’ a song formed as he travelled through the New Mexico/Texas/Mexico border region, witnessing first hand the great divide of haves and have-nots and those who dared to defy the border. ‘Up To Fail’ is also a contemporary piece of storytelling, delivered to an up-tempo, driving rhythm it contemplates a generation being brought up in a system where lack of opportunity means that “It’s getting harder to go straight then it is to go to jail, it seems like they set the whole goddamn thing up to fail.”
The album is very much a showcase for St Clair’s ability to write songs that tell stories that deliver damning indictments of injustices and inequalities, both historic and current, but he has also managed to set this to some damn fine music. This is a balladeer with a mean guitar, and when the album really hits the heights with the likes of ‘The Places Where They Prayed,’ ‘Up To Fail’ and ‘Corridors,’ lazy music reviewer comparisons with the likes of Glen Frey and Jackson Browne are not out of place.
Not everything here hits those heights but when this album is good it is very good and those lyrics are never short of compelling.